Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.
By Casey Haggerty
It’s not always easy being a natural areas intern. Since my job often takes me off the trails and into the brush, I am among the most likely to encounter poison ivy, spiders, stinging nettle, mosquitos, animal carcasses, rattlesnakes, and low-hanging branches whose lifelong mission is to stab me in the eye. Despite this, I love my job. All discomfort mentioned above is swallowed up by the satisfaction that comes from being a part of the conservation and restoration efforts happening at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.
Conservation is the protection of ecosystems and species to prevent their degradation or decline. Some sites within Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum (henceforth Matthaei-Nichols) have never been disturbed by human activity and continue to be protected and maintained by staff. However, many sites on our properties have been disturbed by human activity and must undergo restoration, which is the practice of returning an ecosystem to a healthy, stable state. We use both conservation and restoration to encourage thriving ecosystems so that Michigan flora and fauna may have a refuge in an increasingly ecologically degraded and crowded world.
Although awareness for environmental stewardship is rising, the methods employed to conserve and restore ecosystems are less well-known, and even sometimes looked upon with skepticism. That is why I wanted to dedicate my summer project to communicating conservation and restoration techniques to others, so that they may better understand what it takes to protect Michigan’s natural areas.
Many of the methods used to conserve and restore ecosystems appear violent or destructive. My teammates and I often joke that we protect nature by destroying nature. Although we are joking, there is an element of truth. The majority of issues we face here stem from the presence of invasive plants that are non-native to Michigan and cause harm to native wildlife and ecosystems. They do so by outcompeting and displacing native plants, which compromises the balance of mutualistic relationships between native flora and fauna that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. One of our primary tasks is to remove invasive plants from our properties so that native species can flourish and continue contributing to a healthy ecosystem.
A stunning view of Mud Lake Bog, a rare ecosystem that Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum protects.
The methods we use to remove invasive plants sound like a list of cruel punishments employed during medieval witch hunts. We pull, cut, poison, burn, and bag them with ruthless efficiency. Our targets include garlic mustard, dame’s rocket, motherwort, fig buttercup, bittercress, Norway maple, oriental bittersweet, mullein, bull thistle, purple loosestrife, celandine and more. Matthaei-Nichols has maps of the current and historical locations of invasive plant populations so we are able to best strategize our “plan of attack” to ensure removal efforts are as effective as possible.
As my supervisor, Steve Parrish, likes to put it “You can’t just blindly point at a map and say ‘Ah! We’re going to start here today!’” For efficiency’s sake, it is best to start invasive removal in high-quality sites. These sites are characterized by their high abundance and diversity of native plant species and limited invasive plant presence. Because there are few invasive plants, these sites can be cleared of them within a short amount of time, which then frees us to tackle lower-quality sites. If we started with huge problem areas first, we would never have time to scan and maintain high-quality sites.
That is not to say we ignore highly degraded sites! When we have volunteer workdays, we are able to storm dense patches of invasive plants and clear them in a single day. (Thank you, volunteers!) Brush cutting and burning are also fantastic methods of clearing large, degraded patches in a short amount of time. Prescribed burns are, in fact, the most powerful tool we have. When done correctly, prescribed burns can simultaneously suppress invasive plants and promote native ones.
Black swallow wort seeds ripening on the vine. We remove the seeds before they have a chance to drop!
In addition to this destruction, we get to nourish life too! Native seed propagation and dispersal are tools to promote native plants throughout our property. Native seeds are responsibly harvested from Matthaei-Nichols’ properties and made into seed mixes or grown in the greenhouse to produce seedlings that can later be transplanted when they reach maturity. When making seed mixes, we are careful to include only species suited to the sites we are seeding. It wouldn’t be wise to include prairie species’ seeds in a mix that is destined for a woodland site!
Sometimes it is discouraging to know that, despite our best efforts, we will never be able to eradicate invasive plants from our lands. Some days (especially on hot and humid ones) the urge to throw in the towel and say “I give up!” grows strong. However, my supervisors tell me that they have seen a gradual reduction in invasive plants since they started to control for them twenty years ago. In addition, our properties host rare plants that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, just because we take the time to create space for them. So when my brain whispers that the work I am doing is futile, I remind myself of the Michigan plants that call Matthaei-Nichols home, and I continue to work so they will have a home in the future. It has been an absolute privilege to work here this summer!
Casey is a recent University of Michigan graduate with a bachelor of science from Program in the Environment. She as loved every moment of being an intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum because she gets to apply concepts she learned in class in the field. Her favorite experience this summer has been finding eastern massasauga rattlesnakes! Casey’s internship was made possible by a gift from Steve and Ann Norman and Anthony Norman for the care, maintenance, and study of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens outdoor plant collection.